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The Dreaded "Why?"

Why are birds in the park? Because they live there. Why? Because they like the nice trees. Why? Because...Aargh! When your 2-year-old gets stuck on the word "why," it can drive you crazy.

But there's beauty in this new game: It proves your child is curious and excited about the world. And his interrogations are his way of keeping your attention. "They're an essential part of bonding," says Mitch Golant, Ph.D., author of The Challenging Child.

Also, subconsciously, children pose lots of questions to boost their vocabularies. "They get new words thrown at them when you answer," Golant explains.

Young children generally first ask "why" soon after they begin to talk, around 20 months, and begin doing it frequently at 2. But they aren't trying to make you nuts. "It's just a straightforward way to get their needs met," says A. Jayne Major, Ph.D., executive director of the Los Angeles-based parenting education agency the Parent Connection, Inc. Even so, every parent has limits. If you reach yours:

Save some questions. Explain to your child that you'll write down his query and respond later. This tactic can temporarily stop the flow of questions as well as help him learn how to delay gratification, Major says. Be sure to follow through on whatever you've promised.

Laugh it off. Humor can be a good response too. Laugh and say, "My brain is tired from all these questions."

Switch places. Once your child is 3, start turning the question around. Ask him, "Why do you think?" If he responds with a shrug or an "I don't know," encourage him to guess at a possible explanation. Or, if you have time, look up the answer together.

The "why" phase tapers off after 4, when kids develop the language skills to ask questions in other ways, such as "Do all those birds live in the park?" In the meantime, take a deep breath and have fun with your child's unbridled curiosity.

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